Electronic dance music and festival photographer Drew Ressler
© Caesar Sebastian
Stories from the dance floor.
When most of us go to a festival, we’re lucky to get one good photo of our favourite artist. For electronic dance music and festival photographer Drew Ressler, he gets hundreds, if not thousands of photos most of us can only dream of. From the lows of working in the video game industry to being backstage with Tommy Lee and seeing Deadmau5 punch through a window in a Hello Kitty costume, Drew’s career has been an eclectic mix of sleepless travel, backstage passes and some truly amazing stories.
We chatted to Drew Ressler, AKA Rukes, about his enviable job, the highs and lows of shooting festivals around the world and why just because you’ve got a phone, doesn’t mean you know how to take a good festival photo.
Easy one to get started: How did you get into EDM/festival photography? When did you know you wanted to make it your career?
I got started in late 2004. I was into the music in the late 90’s, but for my birthday in 2004 I got my first camera, the Canon G3 point-and-shoot. I was a fan of the DJ BT back then, and my friend Lainie was managing him and invited me to his next gig in NYC. I of course brought my camera to document the event for other fans of BT.
From there, I saw/”photographed” a few more gigs in NY before I moved to LA shortly after. I bought a Canon 20D and thought about taking pics of clubs in my spare time, so I started at Avalon since every week playing there was a DJ I was a fan of!
I knew I wanted to make it my career when I got a job offer to shoot Avalon in Hollywood every weekend for pretty much the same amount of money I would make the entire week at my very depressing video game industry job. So I took the risk, quit the videogame industry and started to focus 100% on photography.
I know you worked in the video game industry and now you’re a professional photographer. Two industries a lot of people would love to get into – what’s your secret?
The videogame industry was a mixed bag. I started off as a QA tester – which is usually the entryway to the industry. I built up an impressive resume in New York, but when I moved to LA, pretty much all the companies I worked for did not care about my skills and usually under-utilized me severely and it wasn’t making me happy.
Conversely, taking photos and learning how to operate a camera to capture a good photo was very fun. Back when I started very few people had DSLR cameras, so musicians and clubs were eager to have a photographer with pro gear take pics of their shows. It was pretty good timing, compared to nowadays when everyone has a DSLR.
As someone who spends a large part of their day (and night) hanging out with partying musicians, how do you stay focused?
I don’t really have any vices; I don’t smoke, drink or do drugs. So I let the musicians do all the partying for me and I just focus on taking photos. The mindset of always needing to take amazing pics of an event is my main focus each time I shoot. I need to have at least one amazing photo each gig and I don’t stop until I get it. My job is always priority; that’s what they hire me for!
What are some of your favourite festivals/events around the world?
There are so many, it’s always hard to choose. I love Holy Ship since it’s a really fun time on a cruise ship around Miami and the Bahamas with a bunch of friends. Ultra always has more and more amazing festivals internationally, so I am really happy to constantly travel around the world to shoot them, especially when we do Japan in September (my favourite place in the world). Stereosonic was a great festival in Australia, so I hope someone fills the gap in the “tour around Australia for a week” festival opening. I also love Djakarta Warehouse Project; always a great production and amazing fans.
© Drew Ressler
You shoot mainly DJs at EDM and festivals – lighting must be a nightmare. What’s a simple fool-proof technique for capturing great photos at these events?
Knowing your camera and lenses limits, as well as what is going on, helps a lot. I keep an eye on how the lighting changes throughout a set; sometimes during a big drop they will flash the strobes on the crowd so I try to capture that moment. Knowing the proper manual settings is key; for example LED panels usually require a certain shutter speed to fully capture the image without movement and parts of the panels appearing off.
For when it’s really dark, I have some low-light lenses I use for portraits; the EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM and the EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM.
Finally, having a good low-light camera helps. I love the EOS-1D X Mark II, and even in the darkest moments, I never need to go higher than 3200 ISO as long as I time my shots right and hold myself steady. You never need to drag the shutter to capture shows nowadays, as production gets bigger and bigger.
Do you ever go to a festival with a “set-list” of shots you want to get? Or do you just see where the event takes you?
I generally like to cover the basics every time: symmetrical crowd shot from behind the DJ, symmetrical production shot from the front of house, telephoto shot of the DJ if the booth is low enough, and a portrait shot from the side while in the booth. Once I have those covered, it’s usually depending on the whole production setup for other shots. Sometimes there is a booth above the front of house I can get shots from, sometimes the event is in a stadium where I can get in the upper balcony, and sometimes there is space between the front LED panel and the DJ booth I can squeeze in to get some close-up wide pics of the DJ in the booth.
Other times it also depends on what DJ is playing and what they like to do. Does this DJ stand on the booth often? Do they do a “Everyone put your lights in the air moment” and when during their set do they do it?
Things like this take multiple times to get used to, but it makes my job easier. But the overload of information does get confusing, to the point where if I tour with Zedd for a bit, then tour with another DJ or a bunch of festivals for a few months, when I go back on tour with Zedd, I have to re-learn some songs and when some pyro cues go off.
To some people, you’ve got the best job in the world. Getting paid to travel to festivals around the world and take photos of some of the world’s best DJs, but it must be quite intense going to so many festivals. Are there any downsides people might not know about?
There are a few downsides. The amount of travel I do often really messes with your sleep schedule due to the jet lag. By the time I’m used to one time zone, I’m often off to another one. DJ schedules are often difficult too; sometimes right after a gig we have to fly to the next gig just to make it, so nights with a few hours sleep between gigs is common. One year I spent 6 weeks on the road going through about 8 countries over 4 continents, it really wrecked me when I got home. Coming home from a big international tour usually means I need some downtime to get back to normal.
At festivals, one of the biggest stresses I have is with security. Even if you have all the proper credentials or wristbands, clueless security can try to throw a wrench in your work and try to prevent you from doing your job. Sometimes I even get security harassing me about the 15-minute rule* when I’m clearly shooting for the festival or artist and are exempt; and minutes count in this industry. I look at each set as a countdown, so if I’m busy trying to clear up security, I could be missing some epic photo opportunities.
(*The amount of time a normal photographer is allowed to shoot an artist on stage during a show.)
You’ve been doing this for a while now, what’s been the most significant change in photography you’ve seen since you started?
The increase in technology has been great. I always look forward to every 4 years for the next EOS-1D X itineration and what benefits it brings to the table, as well as new lenses I can upgrade to (and eventually when the technology gets to the point of being able to replace two lenses with one lens that covers both). Newer cameras and lenses with better low-light capabilities help make my job easier every few years!
Another thing that is more disappointing are the people that try to get into the industry for the wrong reasons, or the wrong way.
Now that DSLR’s are common and anyone can get them, someone can just buy a camera and try to shoot for free. I know a lot of photographers that unfortunately pay all their flight and hotel expenses, and break even with what a festival would pay them, just for the exposure. Some even tour with DJs for free just to party. Thankfully with all the DJs and festivals I work with, they value the quality and professionalism I bring to the table, and hire me regularly.
Now it seems that everyone with a phone thinks they’re a photographer – this must be even more so now in clubs, with everyone taking selfies and pictures of the performers. How do you make sure your photos stand out?
One problem that I notice out there is the problem with high ISO. Some photographers just crank up the ISO to insanely high noisy levels and shoot in Auto when it’s not needed; even during daylight hours. I have seen some photos where the scene is bright enough to shoot in a relatively noiseless 800-1600 ISO, but the photo is so insanely noisy it looks like it’s snowing in the photo; even with noise reduction.
My goal has always been to have photos that look as good full-size as they do small; one of the current trends is to just make the photo look good enough for small social media sizes, but then when the photo is viewed at the full size, it’s blurry, out of focus and severely noisy. Focus is key for high-res photos. You can try to get away with it when the photo is small, but unless my focus is sharp and where I want it, no matter how “good” the photo looks, I delete it.
© Drew Ressler
What else are you working on at the moment? Anything else in the pipeline?
Right now just doing more and more photo work, and slowly branching out into more press photos rather than all photojournalism-type shots.
I also have a photo apparel collaboration at http://apparel.rukes.com where I take some generic gig and still life photos and make them into hoodies/shirts/blankets. They sell very well and every time I go to a festival, I see more and more people wearing them. I even saw someone at Ultra Europe in Croatia with a tank top on!
Every year keeps on getting busier for me, so things I would like to do keep getting pushed back. I would like to do some more rock/pop stuff. I do also have plans to eventually make a photo book, but I who knows when the cut-off for that will be. Maybe my 20th anniversary?
What’s the best story associated with a photo you’ve taken?
There are tons of great photos with crazy stories. One of my favourite photos is from Stereosonic a few years ago, where I was taking photos of Tiesto while he was playing. He turns around and passes me his headphones as a joke for me to take them and pretend to DJ, but I kept on shooting and the shot I got became iconic.
Another one shows a giant Hello Kitty punching through a broken glass window. On a Deadmau5 tour with Tommy Lee hanging out, everyone decided to get full costume cartoon character outfits and before each gig, just go out in the crowd and goof off while nobody knew what was going on. Backstage I was editing photos in a trailer, and Deadmau5 in the Hello Kitty suit goes to knock on the glass window to get my attention. The suit was pretty solid, so the knock ended up being a superhero punch right through the window. I had him re-create the punch after that happened.
Other random things are scattered all over my website; one good thing I do is I keep every photo gallery up that I have taken, so people can go all the way back to my point and shoot days in 2004 and see the photos I took back then. That’s another reason I eventually want to do a book, I have so many stories with so many photos!
You’re self-taught, what advice would you give to others just starting out?
Just to figure out your own personal eye for photography. Don’t try to emulate other photographers. Focus on your work.
Also, don’t work for free once you have proven that you can take good photos. Your work is an art and you deserve to be paid for that.
© Drew Ressler
Hybrid, a DJ group from the UK. Pretty much every song and remix they have put out, I love. They are one of the reasons I got into dance music, as well as proponents to push me forward with my photography (Mike Truman mentioned that I had a good eye for photography right when I was starting out).
Most people go to nightclubs and festivals to relax and party, but it’s your job – what do you do to unwind?
Watching TV/movies, playing videogames, reading a book, and going out for an amazing meal.
What items in your kitbag are the most essential?
Aside from my camera and lenses/flash, I always need to have these in my bag:
- Custom earplugs. I always wear them. It’s extremely important to save your hearing!
- Rechargeable high-lumen flashlight. Great for getting around dark festivals and events (and helpful if I drop a lens cap!)
- Various cleaners, like a rocket blower, sensor swabs, lens tissues, etc.
- Multiple connectors, such as a USB-C card reader as well as a plain USB-C cable to connect my camera directly.
- A good flash diffuser, but I only generally use flash for portrait shots.
- Carabiner. Always helpful for attaching laminates without a neck cord.
Answers edited for clarity and pacing.
Drew Ressler’s Kit Bag
LENSES + FLASH:
Interview credit: Written by Martin Fleming